ON SOME NEARBY country roads, the “fresh cider” signs nearly were outnumbering political placards this past election. Whole Foods et al have been hawking gallons of the stuff since before the leaves started to turn. It’s all very fine and wholesome to stop by the side of the lane and quaff a paper cup of the sweet, thick beverage. But in reality, what you’re drinking is cloudy apple juice.
In the rest of the world, “cider” means hard cider, aka an alcoholic beverage made from fermented apple juice. Basically, when left to sit for weeks or months, the unpasteurized juice begins to bubble as natural yeasts eat its sugars, leaving behind a mildly alcoholic liquid. (Commercial cider companies often add their own yeast to ramp up the process.) And while Prohibition put a temporary buzzkill on America’s historic passion for the stuff, local chefs, bartenders and even a few nearby cider makers are renewing interest in apples (and sometimes pears).
“I think cider goes so well with food, and it’s so convivial,” says Ben Watson, author of “Cider Hard and Sweet” ($25, Countryman Press). “But in this country, it suffers from a neither-fish-nor-fowl image. Some people think it’s a beer because of how it’s packaged; others think it’s wine. And in some ways, they’re both correct.”
Humans have been turning apples into hooch for thousands of years. When invading England, Julius Caesar and his troops encountered Celts distilling a beverage from crab apples. Thomas Jefferson brewed a champagne-like apple wine at Monticello. And the stuff was so common in colonial America that some people used cider as a form of currency.
“They didn’t have many grains back then to make beer, and cider was popular because it was preserveable,” says Chuck Shelton, co-owner of Vintage Virginia Apples, an orchard near Charlottesville, Va., that is slated to open a cidery selling beverages blended from its heritage-variety apples in early 2009. “People could drink cider through the winter, but you couldn’t store fruit for that long.”
Now, the world’s biggest producers (and consumers) of cider include the English, the Spanish and the French. In the U.K., residents gulp thousands of gallons of high-octane, dry varieties like Strongbow or Samuel Smith. In France’s Normandy region, locals chomp their crepes with cidre doux, a slightly sweet, often effervescent libation that’s low in alcohol. “French ciders are reminiscent of wine. They have a complex earthiness,” says Greg Engert, beer director at Alexandria‘s Rustico (827 Slaters Lane; 703-224-5051), which serves five ciders.
In French Canada, orchard owners, witnessing the success of ice wine (a digestive made from grapes allowed to freeze on the vine) have been pressing ice cider from frozen apples. “It’s sweet but not cloying, with a viscous mouth feel,” says Watson. “It’s great with fruit desserts like apple pie.”
American ciders, often sweeter than their European counterparts, have traditionally come from orchard-laden regions like New England and Washington state. But the Old Dominion could be the next frontier for the craft. While Vintage Virginia’s Shelton won’t press his first batches until next month, Diane and Chuck Flynt are already creating acclaimed potions at Foggy Ridge Cider in rural Southwest Virginia. Drawing heritage apples with names like Cox’s Orange Pippin and Roxbury Russett, the Flynts produce three ciders, including the crisp, food-friendly Serious Cider and the sweet First Fruit.
“Like grapes, you work with what grows on your site,” says Diane. “Then, typically, you’ll blend a number of different apples together. Though some apples, like the Virginia Crab, which we use in First Fruit, have all the characteristics you want: good acidity, good sugar and some tannins.”
If you want to serve ciders at an autumn bash, Flynt recommends savoring them like wine, not quaffing them like a rugby hooligan. “You have to taste them and think about what’s in your mouth,” she says. “Ciders come in a range of flavors.” Purchase bottles from a range of producers and countries, maybe even including a perry (pear cider), then pour them in wine or cider glasses. “It should be a little cooler than room temperature, but not ice cold,” says Watson. “Too much chill and you’ll lose the taste.”
The Brits often mix their cider with lager, creating pub-fave drink the Snakebite. Cider can also star in more grown-up highballs. Alice Gaber, mixologist at Dupont Circle‘s Firefly (1310 New Hampshire Ave. NW; 202-861-1310), puts Vermont’s Original Sin Hard Cider into a brisk sangria with rosÃ©, fruit, vodka and apple liqueur. “I add cider at the last minute to give it bubbles,” says Gaber. “It tastes like fall, a little homey.”
Cider also pairs well with food. “Cider and cheese are two of the most important food groups,” says Flynt. “You need enough fat to balance cider’s tartness, so a cheesy thing is perfect.” Watson likes to keep the menu at his cider tastings simple, and “just serve pate, bread, nothing with lots of garlic.” Then, too, cider boasts enough bubbly bite to cut through a rich cream sauce or pick up the flavors in a pork cutlet with apple chutney.
Cider can also figure into the cuisine itself. At Columbia Heights gastropub CommonWealth (1400 Irving St.; 202-265-1400), executive chef Jamie Leeds puts Strongbow Cider in a vinaigrette on a watercress, poached egg and ham salad to delicious, zingy effect. “Cider has a tartness and a smoothness that I like, and it adds another layer of flavor,” she says. Kind of like pouring a few of the sweet, intoxicating beverages at your next big bash.
» SIPPING THROUGH THE ORCHARD
Hard ciders are plentiful at local bars. For imbibing apple (or pear) goodness at home, try the following fruity beverages.
» Cuvee Speciale Kerisac (25.4 ounces, $7, Total Wine & More) Dark gold in hue, this bubbly French import is just barely alcoholic (2.5 percent), quite apple-y and would go well with pork.
» J.K. Scrumpy’s Hard Cider (22 ounces, $5.49, Total Wine & More) This British organic cider might be a tad too sweet for some, but its effervescence and rich flavors make it almost dessert-like.
» Newton’s Folly ($5.99 a six pack, Trader Joe’s) Acidic and clear, this is nicely crisp.
» Woodchuck Draft Cider Pear (12 ounces, $1.50, Total Wine & More) Clear, subtly sweet and slightly citrusy, this pale green treat matched terrifically with cheese.
Photos by Lawrence Luk and Writen By Jennifer Barger